The Elements of Story: Field Notes on Nonfiction Writing

( 5 )

Overview

Most writing books dwell on common issues of style and grammar. Yet most writers also confront complex problems of story design. This fifty-rule guide by Francis Flaherty, a New York Times editor, offers much-needed solutions and sage advice to address these concerns.

"Sometimes, say things sideways," Flaherty writes. "The reader will be grateful." "White is whitest on black," he observes. "Let contrast work for you." Through such hard-won, story-level insights, sprinkled with examples from real stories and ...

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Elements of Story: Field Notes on Nonfiction Writing

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Overview

Most writing books dwell on common issues of style and grammar. Yet most writers also confront complex problems of story design. This fifty-rule guide by Francis Flaherty, a New York Times editor, offers much-needed solutions and sage advice to address these concerns.

"Sometimes, say things sideways," Flaherty writes. "The reader will be grateful." "White is whitest on black," he observes. "Let contrast work for you." Through such hard-won, story-level insights, sprinkled with examples from real stories and leavened with a good dose of newsroom memoir, The Elements of Story merits a spot on every writer's shelf.

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Editorial Reviews

Luc Sante
“Frank Flaherty’s The Elements of Story is a model of good sense, a clear, well-lighted path through the jungle of nonfiction narrative. It represents so much accrued wisdom that even veteran writers will want to keep it on hand, and it’s fun to read, too.”
Andre Aciman
“Flaherty’s book will be the classic yardstick for how to grab readers and not let go until they see and hear and think exactly what the author has seen, heard, and thought.”
Roy Peter Clark
“Ailing writers, not to worry. There is a Story Doctor in the house. His name is Frank Flaherty, and his powerful medicine is on every page of The Elements of Story. It belongs on your shelf right there next to that other Elements book.”
Elizabeth Royte
“Frank Flaherty has found the perfect voice to guide writers in creating muscular yet nimble prose. He’s encouraging and friendly (exuberant, even!), assured and wry. A delight to read, The Elements of Story makes me itch to write.”
William G. Connolly
“A virtual Merck Manual for story doctors, filled with insightful diagnoses and effective prescriptions.”
Bill Kovach
“Francis Flaherty has turned his love of writing into a book that will help journalists produce nonfiction that provides life enriching articles that can hold their own against the most imaginative fiction.”
Susan Shapiro
“Frank Flaherty’s writing guide is fluid, fun and filled with brilliant advice for anybody who wants to improve their work, break into this country’s top newspapers or get a glimpse into an editor’s mind.”
Library Journal

Playing on the title of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, Flaherty, a New York Times editor who teaches journalism at New York University, shares 50 simple and insightful tips on the many elements writers can convey in stories. Not a style guide, this is instead a nuts-and-bolts examination of the larger elements of a story. First and most adamantly, he stresses the importance of bringing a human face to every story. Flaherty gives us real and invented examples of the cream of the crop of nonfiction writing in the form of narrative news articles. VERDICT This book can be read in one fell swoop to expose yourself to the full spectrum of story elements—such as theme, motion, artfulness, truth and fairness, leads, and titles—or it can be used as a guide during the process of writing nonfiction. An essential read for both freelance writers and students of journalism.—David L. Reynolds, Cleveland P.L.


—David L. Reynolds
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061689154
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 9/7/2010
  • Pages: 293
  • Sales rank: 523,356
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Francis Flaherty

Francis Flaherty has worked for more than seventeen years at The New York Times. He has written for Harper's, Atlantic Monthly, Commonweal, and The Progressive and teaches journalism at NYU. He lives with his wife and two children in Brooklyn, New York.

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Read an Excerpt

The Elements of Story
Field Notes on Nonfiction Writing

Chapter One

Shivers on Wall Street

Every story has a human element.

Whatever your subject, give it a human face if you can. Imagine a story about people who had enough money to invest in the American stock market in 1996, but, for various reasons, did not. Maybe they believed real estate was a better deal. Maybe they wanted to bet on bonds. Or maybe they thought overseas stock markets were the place to be.

But they were wrong. Nineteen ninety-six was a banner year on Wall Street, with the Dow Jones industrial average rising 26 percent.

A Times article about these unfortunates appeared in the business pages, and necessarily explored many technical subjects that readers expect to see in that part of the paper—the reasons for the large gain, comparisons to past years, the investors' mistaken theories, and the prospect that their ideas, dry holes in 1996, might strike oil in 1997.

Sounds dull. Sure, you say, this article may be useful to investors, but it hardly seems gripping.

Can it be both?

The answer is yes. There is an emotional center to this story. People who miss out on a good thing are prey to regret, anger and jealousy. Such feelings, in fact, were the original inspiration for the article.

For that reason, I wrote a lead that went like this:

They are on the outside looking in, noses pressed against the glass, stamping their feet in the chill, watching the festivities within.

Yep, that's right. These are investors who did not attend the Wall Street Revels of 1996. Stocks may have soared and portfolios mayhave swelled, but these people made less money than the overall market would suggest, or maybe none at all.

This lead displays for the reader the emotions of those left out in the cold. You can elect to write about made-up people, as this lead does, or about real ones, but do not ignore the human side. If you do, your tale will be ho-hum, like this hypothetical lead to the same story:

Nineteen ninety-six was a banner year for the stock market, with the Dow Jones industrial average rising 26 percent and the shares of many individual enterprises soaring far higher. But some investors, for various reasons, chose not to participate in the market that year. . . .

Boring! Even in significantly technical articles like this investing story, maybe especially in such stories, always fleck at the human feelings in play. As the late Jack Cappon of the Associated Press put it, "The tight housing market is also an old lady evicted with her four cats."

The Elements of Story
Field Notes on Nonfiction Writing
. Copyright (c) by Francis Flaherty . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 16, 2009

    Indispensable!

    THE ELEMENTS OF STORY is perfect for anyone who loves to write or finds writing an ordeal but needs/wants to do it anyway. Longtime New York Times editor Frank Flaherty demystifies the art of good prose from organization to word choice to creating truth on the page. Warm, wise, and witty, this 50-rule guide delights as well as instructs. It's user-friendly with an extensive table of contents and helpful index, and employs clear examples from a wide range of writers. If you don't have time for writing classes, slept through high school and college English, or just want to be a better stylist, this is the one-stop crash course.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 23, 2013

    Fallconleg and the badgers: Chapter 1

    Fallconkit and Thornkit where batting Tinykit and Fawnkits ears when their mother scooped them up. "Fallconkit, Thornkit, why arent you two getting ready for your apprentice ceromonys? Halokit and Mousekit are!" Thornkit sighed and started grooming his pelt. Mousekit woke up and ran over to Daisypetal. "I had a dream, mamma! There was a fallcon! And a badger was ripping its leg off! Oh mamma! What does it mean?" Daisypetal only purred and began grooming Mousekit. "Your going to be a med cat apprentice, shouldent you know?" "But-" "No buts!" Fallconkit began grooming his pelt. "Fallconkit! Get that moss scrap off your tail!" Halokit scolded. "Your not my mom." He muttered but flicked it off. "ALL CATS OLD ENOUGH TO CATCH PREY, GATHER BENEAH IVYROCK!" Fallconkits fathers voice rung out through the camp. Falconkit, Thornkit, Halokit, Tinykit, Fawnkit, and Mousekit where tripping over each others paws to get out of the nursery. "Fallconkit, until you are old enough to recive your warrior name, you shall be called Fallconpaw. Shiningsun will be your metor. Thornkit, until you resive your warrior name you will be called Thornpaw. Your metor will be Daisypetal. Halokit, until you resive your warrior name, you shall be called Halopaw. Your metor will be Titanclaw. Fawnkit, untill you are old enough to recive your warrior name, you shall be called Fawnpaw. Your mentor will be Dewpelt. Tinykit, untill you are old enough to resive your warrior name, you will be called Tinypaw. Your mentor will be Blueclaw. Mousekit, you wish to be a medicen cat, is that so?" "Yes." "Then your mentor shall be Flamesun." "FALLCONPAW!! THORNPAW!!! FAWNPAW!!! TINYPAW!!!! HALOPAW!!!! MOUSEPAW!!!! FALCONPAW!!!! THORNPAW!!! FAWNPAW!!!! TINYPAW!!!! HALOPAW!!!!! MOUSEPAW!!!!!" All the cats cheered the new apprentices names. "Meeting dissmissed." The cats miled around congraulateing him and the other apprentices. Flamesun motianed for Mousepaw to come with her. Shineingsun motioned for him to come with her to the forest. He followed her. "Im going to show you around the terratory today." ~~~~***~~~~ Fallconpaw padded into camp, his paws where very sore from walking. "Whew.... i did not know our boundries where so far away from each other...." Shineingsun only smiled as they padded into camp. Mousepaw ran up to him. "Lemme see your paws." Fallconpaw held them all up, one at a time. Mousepaw looked disapointed. "Whats wrong, Mousepaw?" "Your pads arent cracked." She sighed. "What?!?! You want my paws to crack off?!?!?" "Yes." Fallconpaw sighed and headed toward the apprentice den. END OF PART 1!~Butterflykit. P.S. if you want to comment comment at badgers any res. Thats where i will anser questions give sneak peaks of next chapters or storys ect.,

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 10, 2010

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    Posted April 7, 2011

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    Posted October 7, 2011

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    Posted July 8, 2010

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